In the early 1990s, Don Everhart of the Society of Medalists from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, struck a series of bronze medals depicting dinosaurs on their obverse and corresponding fossils on the reverse. As climate change becomes increasingly visible and requires the cooperation of the international political community, these medals start to gain new meanings. Will humans rise to the challenge of the impending environmental turmoil, or will we perish?
Consider the meticulously designed stegosaurus medal. Its distinctive spine curves down to its tail fitting perfectly within the irregular shape of the medal (ANS 1995.75.7). We see the majestic dinosaur’s profile sipping from a lake while a T-Rex looms in the distance. Like coarse rocks, each medal in this series is fashioned in an irregular shape to emphasize the body of the creature. Unlike the lifelike scene on obverse in relief, on the reverse all of it vanishes into bones pressed into the ground. A thin edge between existence and extinction.
While the medalist, Everhart, may have never intended for these medals to have any implications for climate change, they make the problem tangible today. Each dinosaur portrait represents the coming and going of an entire species. In spite of their monumental might, they were not able to survive the test of time. Accordingly, they are miniaturized and fossilized into an medal now in the ANS’s vault.
As much as collections such as the American Numismatic Society exist for us to learn about the past, they are as much for us to interpret and reinterpret today. If numismatic objects are historicized only in relation to the immediately preceding and following periods, sometimes their broader importance can be overlooked. The elegant medallic dinosaur fossils remind us that humans too could one day be in danger if we do not take care of the natural world around us.
Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties(221 B.C.–A.D. 220) on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (April 3–July 16, 2017) shows how art was pivotal in the formation of a Chinese identity. Too small to fully appreciate without holding, coins often go unnoticed in major exhibitions. They remain reminders of monetized economies, the flow of goods, and regnal shifts. In addition to commissioning China’s Great Wall, the Qin ruler, Ying Zheng (r. 247–220 BC), unified the empire’s monetary system increasing the circulation of copper coinage. He also introduced standards of universal weights and measures. Such policies made money a cosmopolitan language of exchange across vast territories.
An impulse to standardize Chinese knowledge is a phenomenon apparent through several non-monetary objects showcased in the exhibition. A bronze waterclock from the Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 9) embodies this characteristic. A piece of wood or bamboo was likely fed through a small hole in the lid of this container. As water drained out of a tube at its bottom at a steady rate, the wood would sink and mark time. It was the norm for these clocks to be kept in all Qin and Han administrative offices. This simple technological solution brings to mind a number of waterclocks throughout art history. On the opposite side in the spectrum of simplicity, the design for a waterclock of al-Jazari in twelfth-century northeastern Syria/Iraq, a manuscript of which is in the Met’s Islamic holdings, would be a much more fanciful and multipurpose innovation.
The exhibition also features gold ingots (metal exchanged for its value) in the shape of horse-hooves of the Western Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 9). These objects show how certain standards change with the reigns of new emperors. Because of an auspicious vision, the Han Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 BC) transformed the shape of gold ingots from the hooves of qilins (mythical creatures) to horses. A bronze mold for half-ounce coins (banliang) from the Qin or early Han dynasty, ten bronze half-ounce Qin banliangs, and five Han dynasty imitations of Ancient Persian (Parthian) coins are other examples.
Instead of directly showing coins, some of the most iconographically complex objects in the exhibition imply the importance of a monetary economy. The lids of two bronze cowry containers are comprised of sculpted figures, one even displaying a sacrifice scene.
According to the exhibition curators, cowry containers such as these could have been adapted from bronze drums. In ancient times, cowry shells were utilized as currency, particularly in coastal regions, before copper became more accessible. The American Numismatic Society’s collection features cowry that are attributed to China, Africa, and India, and perhaps these would be the kind of objects that would fill these sumptuous containers.
One of the most elegant objects in the show is known as a “money tree” (qian shu) or “money-shaking tree” (yao qian shu). The exhibition label reports that approximately 200 of these are known and they were functioned as funerary goods. The example in the exhibition made of bronze is attributed to the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25–200). From afar, the six layers of branches of the tree look highly ornamented, yet coming close one notices that the leaves of the tree are formed of bronze square-hole coins. How were these money trees produced? Did the same artisans responsible for minting money cast them?
While numismatic evidence may pose many difficulties in museum exhibitions—their scale, legibility, and overall impact on a viewer—being a few, Age of Empires demonstrates how coins were inherent to the process of imperial standardization. Highly ornamented and much larger scale objects potentially imply the power of numismatics.